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The Last Fight: How easy is it to finish on top?

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The perfect finish. Calzaghe concluded his career fighting American legends Action Images/Andrew Couldridge
Only a select few fighters have been fortunate enough to retire in their prime following a victory. Elliot Worsell investigates the boxer's escape plan

HE knew it was the end before it had even begun. He knew it was the end because it felt different to the beginning, and the middle, and how it felt last week. Gone was the 21-year-old who won the world title a decade earlier. Gone, too, was the 31-year-old who had recently been hitting times and heights of old in training, convincing himself his next opponent was tailor-made for him.

Now struck by a feeling too unusual and strong to ignore, Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini, moments before battle, chose not to. He turned to his assistant trainer, Ted Fagan, in their changing room and outed himself, first as doubtful, then prematurely retired. He told Fagan he didn’t want to be there anymore. He told him he didn’t want to do it – fight, pretend – anymore.

“What?” said Fagan, incredulous.

Mancini, the former WBA lightweight champion, repeated his sin.

“It’s a hell of a time to tell me, ain’t it?”

Though he yearned to either stay put or escape, Mancini made it to the ring that night, just as he had done 33 times before, and prepared for the pain that was to follow. It wasn’t a fight he was walking into; it was the most predictable and necessary of defeats. He was finished, he knew that much, but only when finished in the ring would it stop.

“I can remember and tell you things from fights 30 years ago, but I can’t tell you anything about the walk to the ring the night I fought Greg Haugen,” Mancini said. “It’s all a blur. It’s not like I don’t want to remember it. I just can’t.”

Ask Mancini how long his professional boxing career lasted and he will tell you it lasted five and a half years rather than the 12 and a half his record indicates. He will try to convince himself as much as you that it ended in 1985, following a second loss to Livingstone Bramble, and that subsequent outings in 1989 and 1992 were mere vanity projects, fights accepted for all the wrong reasons. He calls the Hector Camacho fight a robbery. He calls the Greg Haugen fight, finished in the seventh round, a mistake.

“I was doing an off-Broadway play and not being physically challenged,” said Mancini. “I was still in shape and wanted to show I could get up and fight in a world-class event again. I had a great training camp but in the dressing room knew I didn’t have it mentally anymore. I didn’t want to be there.”

Ray Mancini fight
Ray Mancini, seen here with Mike Tyson, has found happiness in retirement (Action Images)

A boxer’s last fight tends to be spared the ceremony of a footballer’s last match or an athlete’s last run and in place of a lap of honour they will experience the most dishonourable kind of beating, one handed out not so much by an opponent’s fists but the sport itself. The opponent, in fact, is merely an inconsequential third party, no more than a bystander. They are the salacious text message on a phone. They are the person whose underwear was found beneath the bed. Important, yes, but the relationship, that is, the relationship between boxer and boxing, was toxic from the outset, soured over time and seemingly always destined to end on bad terms.

“I lost my love for competing,” said former WBA featherweight champion Barry McGuigan. “I trained too hard and burned myself out. I genuinely thought, with the greatest respect to all the guys I fought both before (Eusebio) Pedroza and after Pedroza, I lost my love for the game.”

In 1989, McGuigan, three years after losing his featherweight title to Steve Cruz, met England’s Jim McDonnell in Manchester. It was a fight he expected to win; a fight he probably would have won had he still been in love. But he wasn’t and so he didn’t. Instead, McGuigan was bloodied and stopped on a cut after four rounds.  

“Prior to that, the flame was flickering and starting to go out,” he said. “My drive wasn’t the same, not that it in any way affected my performance.

“My dad had passed away and my brother (Dermot) had gone through some trouble and then later committed suicide. He committed suicide in ‘94, but he had problems even at the end of my career. I’d moved from Ireland to England and I just wasn’t the same. The whole structure wasn’t the same.

“I thought I better get out before it’s too late. I was adamant I wasn’t going to become a club fighter or journeyman. I wasn’t even going to be one of those guys who has one fight too many.”

Alexis Argüello, another former WBA featherweight champion, once said a fighter is the last person to know when it’s time to go. What he meant was they are the sloppiest drunks, the ones propping up the bar and demanding tequila shots when the rest are booking taxis home. Convinced they are different, stronger, tougher, they learn only later, when a head full of regret hangs over a toilet full of vomit, that they got their timing wrong and should have listened to those who implored them to stop.  

“Those are my sentiments exactly,” said McGuigan, referring to Argüello’s wisdom, “but I later realised that in actual fact the boxer is the first to know but the last to admit it to themselves.

“Guys know when they have lost the fire in their belly but stay in the game for financial reasons and hype it up. They miss the affirmation. That’s the reason they come back. But they know when they’ve had enough. I knew when I’d had enough and thought there’s no point trying to rekindle anything because it’s not going to come back. I made the right decision.”

Barry McGuigan
McGuigan and Pedroza at Loftus Road

What made McGuigan’s decision tougher than it might have been is the fact he was still relatively young, at 28, and that his last fight ended because of a cut rather than because he had been subjected to a one-sided beating. In boxing, being crippled is often preferable to crippling indecision. It’s certainly more definitive.

“Looking back, I was nowhere near 100 percent fit, but I don’t think I was 100 percent fit for the (Daniel) Geale fight or ones before that,” said Darren Barker, whose career ended following an IBF middleweight title defence against Felix Sturm in 2013. “It was a tough decision to make. I didn’t want to let anyone down by pulling out and I still believed I could win the fight.”

Regrettably, Barker didn’t come close. Injured “three or four weeks” beforehand, the champion’s faulty hip then betrayed him in round one, leaving him a sitting duck for Sturm’s punches. The pain of the result, a second-round stoppage, was soothed only by its inevitability.

“When my hip went in sparring, I tried to disguise it from Tony Sims, my trainer,” Barker recalled. “We had a very simple game plan and I wasn’t practicing it. Tony pulled me to one side and said, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ I told him I hurt my hip but thought I’d be all right.

“As the fight got closer it felt like it had healed up properly. I then got caught and what happened in sparring happened in the first round of the fight. But this is boxing, the hurt sport. Your job is to hurt the opponent. Ask boxers if they go into fights 100 percent and not many will say they do.”

Barker, 31 at the time, concedes that if the money he received for fighting Sturm had been on offer when winning the title against Australian Daniel Geale, he would have retired there and then, without making a single defence. He predicts it would have taken him three or four fights to accumulate the same amount and calls the Sturm payday “life-changing”.

After the loss, he had no doubts. The pain in his hip was the deciding factor but his mind, too, sullied by wear and tear of its own, was in no fit state to argue.

“It was a nice moment,” Barker said. “I was lying down in the changing room as the doctor assessed me and I said to my dad and my trainer, Tony, two very important people, ‘That’s it.’

“We all had a hug and it felt like I had completed boxing. There were no hard feelings or regrets. My dad and Tony were just happy I got out with my faculties intact. I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve.

“Before I won the world title, I was the hungriest man in the world, whereas after achieving my goal, I was a little bit deflated and content. And being content as a boxer is dangerous.

“If I had beaten Sturm, I would have retired anyway because I would have had enough money to jack it in. It would have been a fairytale ending to a good career, but I still think you’ll struggle to find a more content retired fighter than me.”

Darren Barker got from boxing exactly what he was looking for

Richie Woodhall, a former WBC super-middleweight champion, had his changing room goodbye in December 2000, following a 10th-round stoppage defeat at the hands of Joe Calzaghe. That night it was left to the 32-year-old’s father and trainer, Len, to vocalise what he already suspected.

“It’s over,” he said, holding the hurting hands of his son and looking him in the eye. “You’re finished, son.”

Richie could breathe again. He nodded his head. “Yeah, Dad. You’re right.”

“My dad later explained that he didn’t see the fight in me that night against Calzaghe,” said Woodhall. “He detected there was something missing and I understood what he meant. Mentally, more than physically, I’d come to the end. I didn’t try to argue.

“My brother, though, was in earshot and I remember him b*****king my dad a bit. He said, ‘Hey, don’t say that. Let the dust settle and see what he thinks.’ In a way, he was right, it was very immediate. But it was the correct decision.”

Even so, Woodhall eventually wavered and reneged on it when a WBU title shot against Toks Owoh was later pushed his way by promoter Frank Warren. The meaningless title was of no interest but the fight itself was one Woodhall fancied.

“After agreeing to fight Owoh, I felt a pain in my back during only my second run,” he said. “I was about four miles from home, halfway through an eight-mile run, and the pain got so bad it was the first time in my life I had ever stopped on a run.”

Woodhall resented the fact he would have to complete the “longest f**king walk of my life” to make it home. He phoned his brother and was told: “You’ve had the pain before, just push through it.” But this was a different kind of pain, Woodhall stressed, and what followed was a trip to the hospital, an X-ray and the revelation that his lower spine was cracked in two places.

When asked by the doctor what he did for a living, Woodhall said he boxed and that running on roads was a crucial and consistent part of his training regime, something he did five times a week. “Well, this is due to running on hard surfaces,” the doctor informed Woodhall, and because the former champion couldn’t comprehend not running for six months, as per the doctor’s instructions, he knew then he had reached the end of the road.

“There wasn’t even a decision to make,” he said. “When walking those four miles home, I’d already decided I’d never box again, and knew an X-ray would confirm my career was over. It was an excruciating pain I hadn’t felt before.”

Markus Beyer
Richie Woodhall and Markus Beyer (Action Images/Nick Potts)

Regardless of whether the body or mind goes first, most boxers associate the rolling of the end credits with pain and disappointment, the exit forced rather than forecast.

Some, however, do get lucky. The last punch Carl Froch threw in a boxing ring, for example, knocked out George Groves, his bitter rival, in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, while Joe Calzaghe retired after back-to-back wins in America against Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jnr. Better still, he retired at 36 with a 46-0 record, having never been beaten as a pro. 

“It’s every fighter’s dream to win a world title, of course it is, but we also dream of never losing a fight,” said the former WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO world super-middleweight champion.

“I feel blessed that I was able to retire undefeated. If nothing else, it made it very easy for me to retire when I needed to. Because, let’s face it, if I had a defeat or two on my record, I probably would have continued. I’d have found a way or a reason for it to make sense. Maybe I’d have gone for revenge – try to beat the guy who beat me – or looked for redemption in some other way.

“As it happened, I had nothing to prove or fight for. I beat two legends stateside and you couldn’t write a better ending than that. Sometimes you’ve got to listen to your body. All the doctors, and all the signs, were telling me to retire.”

Calzaghe’s hands, now deformed, had been an issue since he was 14 years of age, and he also had problems with his back and legs by the time he called it a day in 2008. More than that, having boxed for 27 years, he was simply fed up with getting punched.

“I think about boxing differently,” he said. “I don’t want to get hit in the head anymore. That doesn’t make sense to me now. I did that for a long, long time and, looking back, that part was never nice.”

Calzaghe schools Lacy

Steve Collins, a two-weight world champion with whom Joe Calzaghe was linked towards the end of Collins’ career, also bowed out on top. Undefeated for five years, his final fights were defences of his WBO super-middleweight title (a belt he would vacate for Calzaghe to win) and both ended with his hand being raised.

“I was so happy when I retired,” Collins said. “I had no incentive to keep fighting. I said to myself if the Roy Jones Jnr fight comes off, I’ll make an exception and do one more, but nothing else interested me.

“I didn’t want to go to that intense place in training camp anymore. I didn’t want to miss my family anymore. I didn’t want to fight anymore. I wanted to do other things and live like a normal person.

“There was a generation of young fighters coming through and I knew they’d be like me when I was coming up. They’d be hungry, determined, fierce and want to beat up on the old guys. I didn’t want to be that old guy. And even if I beat them, what would it prove? The only way was down. Everything seemed like a lose-lose situation to me.”

Collins reckons his last “proper fight” was the rematch against Nigel Benn in 1996 and that his two subsequent defences of the WBO belt, against Frederic Seillier and Craig Cummings, featured a version of ‘The Celtic Warrior’ uninspired and disinterested.

“I remember one morning I couldn’t be a***d to roll over, get out of bed and go jogging, something I’d done like clockwork for years,” he explained. “Even something as simple as that seemed like the greatest chore in the world.

“Then, when I got to the gym, I walked around and sulked and sighed and just wanted to go home. I missed my kids and didn’t want to train. I had money in the bank and didn’t need to do this no more. I was wealthy, comfortable and my business was doing well. My kids were doing well at school. We had a whole life away from boxing and that was something I wanted to enjoy.

“I was 33 years of age and, yes, the Jones fight and payday would have been nice, but how much longer could I wait? When it started looking unlikely, my energy fizzled out. Promoters were coming to me with fights, but nothing could sway me. I was finished.”

Steve Collins knocks down Chris Eubank (Action Images)

Wincobank legend Brendan Ingle would urge every one of his boxers, young or old, to “never let money be their God”. Upon hearing these words, Johnny Nelson vowed never to forget them.

“I wanted to finish on top,” he said. “The temptation was there, as well as the money, but you have to recognise that when it’s gone, it’s gone. Who would have thought Nigel Benn would quit during a fight? But once it’s gone, that fire in your belly, that kamikaze attitude, no matter how much of a fierce fighter you are, it’s not coming back. You then have to think like a civilian and be grown up enough to say, ‘That’s it. I’m done.’”

Nelson’s final fight took place in 2005 against Vincenzo Cantatore. He left the ring triumphant, thanks to a split-decision, and was expected to then defend his WBO cruiserweight title against Enzo Maccarinelli, only for a knee injury to scupper those plans. The loss of the 39-year-old’s edge, meanwhile, as well as persistent back pains, turned a postponement into a retirement.

“The fear I needed to keep me on top was disappearing and I knew it was time to leave or risk losing to someone I shouldn’t be losing to,” Nelson said. “My inspiration for this was Lennox Lewis, who left the sport after he beat Vitali (Klitschko). Despite the pressure, the snipes and the remarks, he stuck to his guns and said, ‘I’m done. I’m out of here.’ He got offered a lot of money to come back but never did.

“You’ve got to be honest with yourself. If you don’t let your mind dictate the decision before your body does, you will be resentful of your sport and the people involved. You will think they only remember you for your last fight – your loss. When you go on too far, it’s like sticking around with a girlfriend who is no good for you. You will acknowledge them, but you don’t want to be their mate.”

Nelson remembers sparring Herol Graham ahead of his ill-fated 1990 encounter with the ferocious Julian Jackson and being able to catch his gym mate with right hands he was once too slick to avoid. He sensed then Graham was fooling himself and that he likely knew what Nelson knew. “But instead of being honest or smart enough to know you are done, you just think you can get away with stuff and that it’s just a little chink in your armour,” he said. “The boxer is the first person to realise they’re done and last person to accept it.”

But not Nelson. For him, an inauspicious start to his pro career (he lost his first three fights) was trumped by a 10-year undefeated run to bring it to a close.

“I left the sport; the sport didn’t leave me,” he said, proudly. “That is the nicest feeling. Nobody can ever take that away from me.

“You’ve got fighters who have reached the highest points and achieved far more than I did but have that bitterness about them for the rest of their lives because the sport left them. When you’re in bed at night, and the door is shut, you know, no matter what you tell other people, that you went on too long and got it wrong. That’s regret.”

In boxing, punches hurt, injuries hurt, and defeat hurts. Nothing, though, hurts quite like regret.

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Jonny Nelson understood when it was time to retire (Action Images)

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